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UK condemns death sentence handed to foreign fighters by separatist court in Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier (Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/Wikimedia Commons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has slammed the death sentences that Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine say their top court handed down to two British nationals and a Moroccan for being “mercenaries” and fighting with the Ukrainian armed forces.

Truss said the men were prisoners of war and called the judgment a “sham” with “absolutely no legitimacy.”

“I utterly condemn the sentencing of Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner held by Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine,” Truss said on Twitter.

The separatist leadership in the Donetsk region said that Aslin, Pinner, and Moroccan student Saaudun Brahim were sentenced to death on June 9 after a two-day trial.

They were convicted of “mercenary activities and committing actions aimed at seizing power and overthrowing the constitutional order” in the region, which is controlled by the separatists and a current focal point of fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops.

Amnesty International’s deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia called it a “blatant violation of international humanitarian law on so many counts.”

Denis Krivosheyev said the three were members of the Ukrainian regular forces and as prisoners of war are protected from prosecution for taking part in hostilities.

“The only exception is prosecution for alleged war crimes, in which case there must be sufficient admissible evidence, and fair trial standards must be ensured,” Krivosheyev said in a statement. “Not only this is not the case in this scenario — they were not tried by an independent, impartial, regularly constituted court but by Russian proxies.”

Robert Jenrick, the member of parliament who represents the district where Aslin’s family live, said the proceedings were akin to a “Soviet-era show trial.”

Aslin and Pinner, who served in a Ukrainian military unit in the city of Mariupol, were captured by the separatists in April. Saaudun was taken prisoner in March near the town of Volnovakha in the Donetsk region.

Saadoun’s father, Taher Saadoun, told the Moroccan online Arab-language newspaper Madar 21 that his son is not a mercenary and that he holds Ukrainian citizenship.

The lawyer for the men said they will appeal the decision.

Russian officials have said that since they consider the three mercenaries, they are not protected by international laws regarding prisoners of war.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, through his spokesman in London, expressed concern over the verdicts and sentences handed to the three men, as they are entitled to combatant immunity.

“We’re obviously deeply concerned by this. We’ve said continually that prisoners of war shouldn’t be exploited for political purposes,” the spokesman told reporters after the verdict was handed down.

“Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are entitled to combatant immunity, and they should not be prosecuted for participation in hostilities,” the statement said.

“So we will continue to work with Ukrainian authorities to try and secure the release of any British national who was serving in the Ukrainian armed forces and who are being held as prisoners of war.”

In April, Russian state television showed Pinner and Aslin pleading guilty after their capture and asking Johnson to assist in exchanging them and other captured Ukrainian soldiers for pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who is being held by Kyiv on high-treason charges.

Relatives of Pinner and Aslin said at the time that their televised statements were made under duress. They also said that the two men served in the Ukrainian armed forces on a contractual basis and therefore cannot be considered mercenaries.

Russian media reports say Pinner has lived in Mariupol with his Ukrainian wife since 2018.

Russia currently has a moratorium on using the death penalty but says that does not apply to the areas of Ukraine controlled by the separatists.